This gripping gothic romp is the antidote to Marvel burnout

Tom Sturridge as Morpheus/Dream - Netflix/PA

Tom Sturridge as Morpheus/Dream – Netflix/PA

Strictly speaking Netflix’s The Sandman is yet another superhero adaptation to feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for people in strange outfits saving the world. But this DC Comics creation is no Thor or Iron Man. Instead of the Incredible Hulk, say hello to the Incredible Sulk.

Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams—no one actually refers to him as the Sandman—is a gloomy gadabout, who dresses like a depressive version of the Cures’ Robert Smith circa 1985. His hair culminates in a kind of tentative, dystopian quiff; his skin color is 50 shades of translucent. And instead of leaping over tall buildings, he leaps into people’s subconscious—and weaves the dreams that excite and haunt us.

At least he does until he’s kidnapped by Jazz Age occultists. That’s where this often dazzling and otherwise solidly bingeable series begins.

The Sandman has long been perceived as the ultimate “unfilmable” cartoon. The Neil Gaiman saga for DC’s Vertigo imprint, which ran from 1989 to 1996, surfs a dreamlike logic deemed impossible to shrink down to television. Or, if not impossible, then pointless. Characters jump between timelines. The plot has the zig-zag anti-logic of the human imagination run amok. The sheer eighties goth glumness leaves no room for Marvel-type jokes or innuendo.

All of these qualities have been preserved in Netflix’s highly anticipated Sandman, developed by Gaiman and Batman v Superman screenwriter David S Goyer. That fidelity to the source material will please hardcore Gaiman fans (there is no such thing as a lukewarm Gaiman fan). But The Sandman can also fascinate newcomers burned out on Marvel spin-offs and open up to a comic book caper that sets its sights higher than jokey ultra-violence.

The cast is the stuff of dreams. Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie is as cold as Satan. Jenna Coleman goes all EastEnders playing cockney demon hunter Johanna Constantine (gender reversed from John). Sanjeev Bhaskar and Asim Chaudhry put in a great extended cameo forever feuding siblings Cain and Abel. And they really should come up with some kind of award to jointly present to Mark Hamill, who voices a talking squash named Merv Pumpkinhead, and to Lenny Henry, who plays furry dream monster Martin Tenbones.

Most impressive of all is Tom Sturridge mumbling Morpheus himself. In the original cartoon, Morpheus’ speech bubbles are rendered in jet black; Sturridge, a fan of the material, gets just the upset gloom. He really does sound like every word he says comes with dripping midnight ink. He’s also so pale he makes Robert Pattinson look like he’s just returned from a fortnight in Lanzarote.

The 10-part series cuts across a lot, taking in the first two of the collected Gaiman graphic novels. But it goes quickly, the episodic nature of the books lends itself well to TV. Only at the end does it fall apart, when Gaiman and his co-writers are required to cobble together a conventional season finale that feels forced.

Until then, it’s a gripping goth romp—one that at times feels like The Avengers for Sisters of Mercy fans. Morpheus is one of the Endless, a family of interdimensional beings who serve as midwives to the human experience. Their ranks also include Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste – a standout in the strongest episode) and Desire.

Joely Richardson as Ethel Cripps - Netflix/PA

Joely Richardson as Ethel Cripps – Netflix/PA

The latter is played by Mason Alexander Park as a kind of nightmare mash-up of Annie Lennox, Mark Almond and a wine bar yuppie celebrating the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange. The performance is irresistible, even if it is one of the few examples where the source material’s origins from the late eighties shine through.

The Sandman begins relatively conventionally in a Downton Abbey-style pile in 1916, where an embittered wizard Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) attempts to summon Death so that his son, killed in the war, can be brought back. He instead conjures Dream, who arrives wearing a nightmarish elephant mask that will be familiar from the comics and has been locked away for decades by Burgess and his descendants.

With Morpheus imprisoned, the dream world falls into ruins and a plague of restless sleep is unleashed (some people are trapped in an eternal slumber). The action from there jumps over everything – spanning time, dimensions and genre. The multi-faceted approach extends to the characters, which are more diverse than in the comics.

That this has provoked outrage online says more about the closed minds of certain corners of the nerd community than it does about Gaiman. If the idea of ​​Death as a young black woman keeps you up at night, then the best advice is to delete your Reddit account and go for a walk.

The Sandman comes as the latest addition to the troubled Neil Gaiman TV universe. American Gods on Amazon promisingly just started to melt away in a white heat of inconceivable plotting. Similarly, the BBC/Amazon tilt at Good Omens, his beloved collaboration with Terry Pratchett, was far too pleased with itself.

But The Sandman gets most things right and is as authentic an adaptation as could reasonably be expected. For Gaiman fans, the game is finally underway.

Are you going to see The Sandman? Tell us what you’re most looking forward to about the series in the comments

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